A Leading Activist Goes From Pressing for Hispanic Appointments to Becoming One

By Diego Graglia, FI2W web editor

Three weeks ago, as a senior vice president of the National Council of La Raza, Cecilia Muñoz was part of the Hispanic lobby pressing the incoming Obama administration for significant Latino representation in the new cabinet.

A few days after the presidential election, in a story by Politico, Muñoz said Latinos expected to be prominent in the Obama administration. “It’s a foregone conclusion that we should be at the table for policy debates and in a position of authority,” she said.

Wednesday, Muñoz was given a seat at that table, when the Obama transition team announced she will join the White House staff as Director of Intergovernmental Affairs.

Cecilia Muñoz

Cecilia Muñoz

Muñoz was born in Detroit in 1962 to immigrant parents from La Paz, Bolivia. According to The Detroit Free Press, her father was an automotive engineer who moved there to attend the University of Michigan.

Muñoz obtained degrees from the University of Michigan and Berkeley. “While studying at the University of Michigan, she tutored Hispanic Americans incarcerated at the state prison in Jackson,” the Free Press reported.

Muñoz started her pro-immigrant activism in California after college. She later joined NCLR, where she has worked for over twenty years. In 2000, she received a MacArthur Foundation $500,000 “genius grant” for her work on immigration and civil rights, The Washington Post said.

In a 2005 essay for NPR‘s Morning Edition, Muñoz said her activism was born of the outrage she felt at injustice leveled at Hispanics. She remembered a conversation with a friend of her family:

He told me that he thought the U.S. might someday go to war somewhere in Latin America. He looked me in the eye and told me that if it happens, he believes my parents belong in an internment camp just like the Japanese-Americans during World War II.

… My outrage that day became the propellant of my life, driving me straight to the civil rights movement, where I’ve worked ever since.

I guess outrage got me pretty far. I found jobs in the immigrant rights movement. I moved to Washington to work as an advocate. I found plenty more to be angry about along the way and built something of a reputation for being strident. Someone once sent my mom an article about my work. She was proud and everything but wanted to know why her baby was described as “ferocious.”

[You can listen to her essay here.]

As a spokeswoman for NCLR, Muñoz recently told The Associated Press she expected Congress to tackle immigration reform: “We start out with expectation we’ll be able to work closely together on this. Where we need to push, we intend to push.”

Now her soon-to-be former colleagues expect her to be supportive of their initiatives from the other side.

“The daughter of Bolivian immigrants, Ms. Muñoz has devoted her life to creating a fair and just society for all,” the National Immigration Forum said in a press release. “She is a tireless advocate and an inspiration to the immigration advocacy community. Her appointment represents further evidence that the Obama administration intends to take immigration reform seriously in the coming years.”

It is unclear, however, that Muñoz will be able to do much for issues like immigration reform from a position that’s officially described as serving “as the President’s liaison to state, local, and tribal governments. (Muñoz is not the first Hispanic to occupy this office: Mexican-American Ruben Barrales served as its director between 2001 and 2006.)

In any case, the lobbying for more Hispanics in the Obama cabinet did not stop with Muñoz’s designation. In NCLR’s press release hailing her appointment, the organization’s president Janet Murguía signed off by saying, “We hope to see more Latino appointments in the upcoming weeks.”

[The video above is part of NPR’s Get My Vote project.]
AboutDiego Graglia
Diego Graglia is a bilingual multimedia journalist who has worked at major media outlets in the U.S. and Latin America. He is currently the editor-in-chief at Expansion, Meixco’s leading business magazine.